Spurred by a filmmaker's documentary, the English town of Modbury became the first in Europe to ban them outright.
It was watching sea creatures choke on plastic bags in the Pacific Ocean that finally persuaded Rebecca Hosking that enough was enough.
The British filmmaker had already recoiled in disgust at deserted Hawaiian beaches piled up with four feet of rubbish, the jetsam of Western consumerism washed up by an ocean teeming with plastic. Now, filming off the coast, she looked on aghast as sea turtles eagerly mistook bobbing translucent shapes in the water for jellyfish.
"Sea turtles can't read Wal-mart or Tesco signs on plastic bags," fumes Ms. Hosking, who returned to Britain in March. "They will home in on it and feed on it. Dolphins mistake them for seaweed and quite often they'll eat them and it causes huge damage."
Within a few weeks of coming back, Hosking persuaded her hometown to ban plastic bags outright and found herself in the vanguard of a sudden British revulsion for that most disposable convenience of the throwaway society.
Stores, grass-roots groups, and citizens are joining forces to reduce national consumption of plastic bags, and Hosking is fielding hundreds of requests a day for guidance.
Wave of plastic-bag activism
Dumbstruck by what she'd seen off the Hawaiian coast during her year-long filmmaking trip, Hosking set up a local screening of her film and invited the town's 43 shopkeepers to come see where plastic bags end up.
All but seven of them showed up. At the end of the viewing, held in a local hall, Hosking called for a show of hands in support of a voluntary ban on plastic bags. Every single hand went up. The rest of the town's shopkeepers quickly followed suit. On May 1, Modbury won bragging rights as the first plastic-bag-free town in Europe.
Now, larger towns and even cities are calling up Hosking to ask how she did it. Supermarkets and other retailers are experimenting with plastic-bag-free days, reusable totes, or even buy-your-own bags to discourage usage.
Retailer Sainsbury introduced a limited-edition reusable cotton bag with the logo "I am not a plastic bag," emblazoned on it. Priced at $10, within an hour 20,000 of them sold out. Others stores are trying out paper bags and "green" checkout lines for environmentally friendly customers who bring their own bags.